How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on certain things, including where the tumor is located, what stage it is in, how healthy you are and whether or not the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas.

In the later stages, the treatment of pancreatic cancer is not likely to be effective. By the time a diagnosis is made, it is often too late for complete surgical removal of the pancreas. However, there are different ways to try to treat pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • Surgical removal of the cancerous part of the pancreas (resection). Lymph nodes near to the pancreas may also be removed. The surgery to remove the pancreas or part of the pancreas is called a pancreatectomy.
  • Radiation to kill the cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy. This method uses drugs that kill cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps your body to fight the cancer. Immunotherapy has largely been ineffective against pancreatic cancer, but about 1% of people with pancreatic cancer and a specific genetic change may benefit from it.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is directed at certain genes or proteins that help cancer grow. Genetic testing is generally how we determine if a targeted therapy is right for you.
  • Clinical trials. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether participating in a clinical trial might be an option.

Other things to know about treatment

Chemotherapy and/or radiation might be used instead of surgery, before surgery to make the tumor smaller, or after surgery to make sure all cancer cells are killed. You should be comfortable working with your healthcare team in making decisions about treatment.

Also, you and your provider should discuss ways to prevent or reduce the side effects related to your treatment. This type of care, called supportive or palliative care, might include pain management. For pancreatic cancer, it might also include ways to improve your digestion and to control diabetes. Supportive care can also help you understand and process your own emotions and those of your family and friends.

Where does pancreatic cancer most often spread?

Pancreatic cancer, which is not often found early, tends to metastasize (spread) to nearby lymph nodes, then to the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity) and lungs.

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